Szczur's Return To Form Guides VU's Win At ASU
Villanova topples the No. 1-seeded Mountaineers, 41-24, to keep its hopes alive for defending its NCAA Division I national championship
By David Coulson
Executive Editor/Managing Partner
College Sporting News
BOONE, N.C. Two of the biggest questions of the Football Championship Subdivision off-season were whether or not Villanova's Matt Szczur would return to the defending national championship team for his senior year and how the Wildcats might do without him?
Villanova didn't expect to get answers to both of those questions during the 2010 season.
Szczur, who signed a baseball contract with the Chicago Cubs in June, announced during the summer that he would return to help his Wildcat teammates defend their NCAA Division I crown.
But he never expected to spend seven weeks on the sidelines with double high ankle sprains. As he watched, Villanova's chances of repeating as champion seemed to sink further into oblivion.
The Wildcats needed a victory over No. 1-ranked Delaware on the road in their final regular-season game just to return to the playoffs.
Fortunately, if you were a Villanova supporter, coach, or player, Szczur returned just in the nick of time to help the Wildcats to a 28-21 overtime victory against the Blue Hens.
Entering the playoffs with a 7-4 record, Villanova knew it would have to take a long, winding road to reach Frisco, Tx. during the postseason.
Halfway through that journey, the Wildcats (9-4) have survived two potential ambushes, knocking off Stephen F. Austin 54-24 last week after trailing 21-7 early and Saturday when they stunned top-seeded Appalachian State 41-24 before a Kidd Brewer Stadium crowd of 15,706 and an ESPN television audience.
"We lost four games this year by a touchdown or less," Villanova assistant head coach and offensive line coach Mark Ferrante said after watching Szczur's work against the Mountaineers. "You have to figure Matt is good for at least one touchdown a game."
It was easy to see where Ferrante was going.
"In the three games where he didn't play (Szczur was in the lineup in a 31-24 loss to Temple to open the season), you have to think we beat Rhode Island and New Hampshire and William & Mary is at least a toss-up."
Szczur earned playoff MVP honors last year during Villanova's magical 14-1 season, scoring a touchdown in each of the playoff wins over Holy Cross, New Hampshire and William & Mary before coming through with two scores as the Wildcats turned a 14-3 deficit into a 23-21 national-championship-clinching victory against Montana.
This cagey Wildcat scampered for a college-best 159 yards rushing and compiled 270 all-purpose yards in a career-defining performance on the biggest stage in FCS.
After Szczur was injured on the second play from scrimmage against Penn in week four of the regular season, it was like someone had removed the fuel additive from a high-performance dragster as Villanova struggled to regain its championship edge.
But with their two-sport star back, the Wildcats have sharpened their form a little bit more every week.
"The morale part of it increases the overall good feeling of our football team," said Villanova head coach Andy Talley. "It is hard to think that one player can have that grasp over a football team. He makes a big difference because he isn't a wordy guy, he just goes out and gets things done."
Against No. 6-ranked Stephen F. Austin (9-3), Szczur caught a career-high 11 passes for 128 yards, including a 68-yard scoring strike from quarterback Chris Whitney. He also rushed for 68 yards.
But he was even more spectacular against Appalachian State (10-3) the team many felt was destined for a fourth national title in six years.
Szczur rushed 16 times for 104 yards, most out of the aptly-named Wildcat formation, grabbed five receptions for 45 and even completed two passes for 58 yards.
More importantly, Szczur ran for three scores (two, 24 and one yards), caught a 30-yard pass for six more points and tossed a 54-yard TD aerial to Norman White, a catch White made with one hand.
"It was a great catch," said the ever-humble Szczur. "Hopefully, it was a top-10 play so we can see it on ESPN."
It was the first time this FCS Superman had run, caught and thrown for touchdowns in the same game.
"He hasn't returned a kick for a touchdown," one writer snapped in the press box.
"The game isn't over yet," said Colonial Athletic Association commissioner Tom Yeager.
With the game well in hand at that point, the only time Szczur saw duty returning kicks was when he made a fair catch on an ASU punt in the third quarter. He had instructions not to run with the ball.
Considering Szczur's slick glove skills as a catcher and an outfielder when he was playing baseball at Villanova, who better to make sure a key punt was nestled to safety.
ASU was so concerned about Szczur's game-breaking ability that the coaching staff looked at game film from last year to better understand how he was deployed.
"The last two ball games (against Delaware and SFA), you got enough of a glimpse of how good he is," said ASU head coach Jerry Moore. "No. 4 is a terrific football player. He made a lot of big plays for them, he made a huge difference for them."
Perhaps more important than what Szczur is doing on his own is what he has meant to the rest of the squad.
"Villanova has so many talented players, he allows everyone else to do what they do best," a Wildcat beat writer said in the press box.
Szczur was the one missing cog in what is rapidly becoming a well-oiled machine, a juggernaut that might not be able to be stopped in this year's playoffs.
The next team standing in Villanova's way will be Eastern Washington, which will likely be hosting the Wildcats on Friday night at 8 p.m. Eastern time in a game to be televised by ESPN2.
EWU beat North Dakota State 38-31 in overtime after trailing by seven in the final seconds.
In the other bracket, Delaware will entertain surprising Georgia Southern, which stopped Wofford 23-20 on the road Saturday. Delaware ousted New Hampshire 16-3 at home on Friday night.
On Saturday, Villanova trailed 7-0 and 10-7, with a TD-saving tackle by cornerback James Pitts on ASU's Devon Moore after a 74-yard pass reception starting to turn the tide late in the first quarter.
The Wildcats held Appalachian State to a field goal after the Pitts' play at the five and Villanova struck for three touchdowns in 10 minutes to silence the rowdy Mountaineer crowd as the hometown team fell behind 28-10 at halftime.
"For us, being able to capitalize and matching them when they scored was huge for us," Szczur said.
Szczur had a hand in all four of those first-half scores.
"App is everything they were advertised to be," said Talley. "We really felt like, if we could catch up with them, somewhere in the first half, then we had a chance to establish some offensive things, keep it in a balance and stay in the game."
The dangerous Mountaineers almost grabbed control on several occasions in the second half, but the cool and collected Wildcats never panicked.
A 14-yard strike from quarterback DeAndre Presley (31-of-56, 361 yards, two TDs, one interception) to tight end Ben Jorden made it 28-17 late in the third quarter, but a roughing the passer penalty on linebacker D.J. Smith kept the next Villanova drive alive and Szczur scored by reaching over the goal line after he appeared to be stopped on third and goal from the one.
"When you see a player make a play like that, it's just football instinct," said Jerry Moore.
After Brian Quick made an athletic catch in the back corner of the end zone on a pass from Presley to cut the lead to 35-24 at the 11:46 mark of the fourth quarter, the Mountaineers created a huge break for themselves on the ensuing kickoff.
VU's Angelo Babbaro was a step away from breaking loose for a 93-yard touchdown when Andrew Peacock punched the ball away from him and Karl Anderson recovered the fumble at the VU 44.
But the Wildcat defense stepped up and stopped receiver Tony Washington just short of a first down on fourth and six at the 35 to end ASU's drive.
"The mark of a championship football team is when you get those opportunities, you have to go and take advantage of it," said Jerry Moore. "When we got the fumble, (not scoring) is almost as bad as if you don't get (the turnover)."
Running back Aaron Ball put the dagger through ASU's championship dreams with a 60-yard rumble up the sideline on the next play, setting up the only touchdown that Szczur's didn't have a hand, or his feet, in.
Chris Whitney's five-yard scoring burst made it 42-24 with less than 10 minutes remaining.
Appalachian State converted a pair of fourth downs to get as close as the Wildcat two on the ensuing possession, but a third fourth-down pass from Presley was picked off by Fred Maldonado in the end zone as the clock wound down to six minutes.
The Mountaineers got as close as the Villanova 19 when they got the ball back one last time, but Washington dropped a fourth-down pass to end ASU's last scoring threat.
"There were opportunities we had," said Presley. "If we made the most of the opportunities we were given, it was a lot closer game than it was."
But the team that made the most of its opportunities on this day was Villanova.
"I think we really have a championship caliber football team right now," said Talley. "I think we can come from behind and play through adeversity. And when the bullets are flying, I think our poise and confidence is a good thing."
And when the ammunition is going off around you, it is good to have Szczur in your foxhole.
"Szczur just does what needs to be done," said Talley. "Obviously, you can see the difference and the growth at the end of the year in our team with him playing."